The record of the beginning of Jesus' public ministry reads: "When He had opened the book ..." Books are still a minister's major tools.
Woodsmen used to consider that time spent sharpening their axe and saw was more important than the time spent using them. So it may be with a minister and the way he or she uses good books.
Basic to a minister's library are the old standard reference works. We say old because they have a time-tested survival rating. For example, back in the 1950s, officers of the Christian Booksellers Association selected 50 basic books for the American White House Library. While not listed here, many of these are the Christian classics that are basic reference sources, helping in our understanding the Bible and Christian history.
Granted, this kind of volume may some times feel a bit heavy, especially for our fast-food, feel-good generation, but we do well to get beyond the menu of milk and sugar to the solid food. While our preaching may need to "translate" much of what we find in sources like these, that same preaching has much more credibility and substance when we use them.
It is a compliment to be well read. One who does not read suffers a great loss, one the minister especially cannot afford. It is report ed that Admiral Perry discovered the North Pole in a Washington bookstore. The same Ben Franklin who, at age 17, was a penniless runaway without any college experience, borrowed books and read.
The value of good books
In a book we can stand with Martin Luther before Emperor Charles V and hear him say, "Here I stand. I can do no other." Or with Benjamin Franklin before the Continental Congress as he warns, "We must hang together, or we shall hang separately."
Lincoln, with little formal schooling, borrowed books and lay by the fireplace and read himself to wisdom, succinctness, and verbal fluency. What Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem was probably not about Lincoln, though it might well have been: "He ate and drank the precious words, his spirit grew robust, he knew no more that he was poor nor that his frame was dust. He danced along the dingy ways and this bequest of wings was but a book: What liberty a loosened spirit brings!"
A number of years ago, the press reported that just before his suicide jump from a Bethesda Naval Hospital window, Secretary James Forestal had been reading the Greek poem "Ajax," which culminates in the hero's suicide. It is not a giant leap to conclude that today's print and electronic media for adults and the electronic media for children con tributes to what Chuck Colson calls a morally wounded America.
Our watchword as thought leaders must be "something better." To find that which is better, we must become connoisseurs of the best of literature. In their attempts to retrieve a quarter of a million precious books, stolen from Holocaust victims, Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, observed, "In the end, books are more precious than gold."
Books are born, much as babies are, often of sweat and mental anguish. Truly good books offer creative inspiration and mental stimulus to energize our neurons. Worthwhile books inspire us to challenge our hearers to replicate the moral and spiritual qualities exemplified within them.
J. D. Snider, in I Love Books, writes of "a lonely monk [who later became an archbish op] who said, 'Our house is empty, save only the rats and mice. ... I sit here with no company but books .... I keep Egypt and the Holy Land in the closet next to the window. On the side are Athens and the Empire of Rome ... I call "Plato" and he answers, "Here." "Aristotle," "Here," Demosthenese, Cicero, Caesar, Tacitus, Plinhy, "Here" they answer and they smile at me in their immortality of youth. They never speak unless spoken to ...never refuse to answer. . . . My architects are building . . . my painters design, my poets sing, my historians and theologians weave their tapes tries, my generals march without noise or blood.'"1
But read the best
In our hectic world and pressured programs, let us seek the peace and creativity of the best thought and inspiration available in good books. "Books are keys to wisdom's treasure; books are gateways to lands of pleasure; books are paths that upward lead; books are friends come let us read."2
Again, the record of Jesus' early ministry begins: "When He had opened the book ..." Here, of course, "the book" was the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17), the Bible. While here we have emphasized the reading of good books, there is none to compare with that one that is above all others and in whose pages we do not hear the voices of Caesar or Cicero, but the voice of Christ; Jesus Himself, the Word of the eternal God. This is our ultimate volume, our quintessential literary resource. This Book is most truly alive. Here we are to be immersed and to live, and from this platform we do our ministry.
Let us become avid readers of all good literature, but especially of this volume that is is our spiritual food and drink; this best of all that is called the Word of God.
1 John S. Snider, I Love Books: Love Books: A Guide Through Bookland (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1951), 27, 28.
2 Emilie Poulsson, cited in Snider, 104.